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The Great Race Divide

Supreme Court Decision On Schools Troubles Experts On Segregation

June 30, 2007
By RINKER BUCK, Courant Staff Writer

Since receiving his Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 1973, James Oliver Horton has authored or co-authored 10 books. The George Washington University historian has been a Fulbright professor in Europe, is now a historian emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and has appeared in countless documentaries on the Civil War and African American history.

Still, at night in the nation's capital, when Professor Horton tries to hail a taxi, few will stop. To them, this distinguished academic, elected last year to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, is just another threatening black man.

"I like to tell my students the story of me and my friends not being able to hail a cab in Washington with humor, so they know I haven't lost my humility or sense of the streets," Horton says. "Even if you're Colin Powell you'd better hope that the cabbies either recognize you or that you have a limousine as backup.

Important Supreme Court Cases Involving Race And Schools
"So, yes, all of the gains of the black middle class are important, it's wonderful to have the solid emergence of an African American professional class, but there are still those vestiges of Jim Crow that take their toll."

During any other week, Horton's musings about America's mean urban streets might seem routine. But this was no ordinary week in Washington. Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court released a landmark decision rejecting efforts by cities that use race to balance school enrollment, setting off a firestorm of political debate.

Conservatives hailed the decision as the final signal that their 30-year effort to establish a solid voting bloc on the high court had succeeded.

Many conservatives have argued that using race to determine school enrollment was unconstitutional and had failed to improve education. In his majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Meanwhile, the considerable establishment of constitutional lawyers, educators and city officials devoted to achieving racial integration in the schools condemned the court's action as a tragic reversal of the gains secured since the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed segregated schools 53 years ago.

But one class of educators - Horton and his academic peers, black and white - seemed uniquely affected by the court's assault on the precedent established in Brown. This is the generation of scholars who benefited from the opportunities and diversity of higher education in the wake of the Brown decision, coming of age during an era of American educational life when integration was no longer a dream but a reality. But this was also the generation of historians, sociologists and demographers who devoted their lives to studying not only the impact of Brown, but the troubled legacy of racism and civil unrest that led up to the court's historic 1954 vote.

And, almost overwhelmingly, these scholars agree on several points.

It is undeniable, they say, that African Americans have made substantial educational and economic gains in the past half-century, a great deal of that progress attributable to advantages gained since Brown. But America can't afford to be smug about its racial future when millions of minority group members are still trapped in urban gulags of poverty, joblessness and poor schools.

What's more, these scholars say, the eroding of the principles of Brown follow a familiar American pattern of achieving racial gains, then abandoning them.

`Urban Racial State'

Noel A. Cazenave is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut who is a native of New Orleans, lives in the Asylum Hill neighborhood in Hartford and teaches courses on African Americans, social protest and the American response to poverty.

In his next book, Cazenave is developing a theory of what he calls the "Urban Racial State." He has examined community action programs in New Haven and Syracuse, N.Y., that were established in the 1960s after big city mayors and charitable foundations became concerned about the increasing concentration of poor blacks in urban areas.

"Instead of dealing with the real issues of the time, which was residential segregation in urban areas, the federal government, foundations and the cities opted for community action programs like job training and education," Cazenave says. "But these programs were really set up to avoid racial conflict because their essential goal was to appease whites in the suburbs and the South while convincing an increasingly restive black leadership that something was being done."

But very little was actually accomplished, Cazenave believes, because the programs simply ended up reinforcing poverty and neighborhood segregation.

"It's the same today with the so-called place-based programs like magnet schools," Cazenave says.

"These are simply strategies to keep blacks in the ghetto, and that's why I call it the urban racial state, or the Connecticut racial state. We're using the enormous power of public spending to solidify existing patterns of racial segregation."

Cazenave agrees that rising income levels for African Americans, and the fact that minority group members are gradually migrating to the suburbs, are positive gains. But the ghettos left behind are increasingly desperate pockets of poverty with even worse conditions than prevailed in the 1960s or 1970s.

In the 1960s a racial ghetto still had a doctor, a school principal living down the street and vibrant churches," Cazenave says. "But now we have real racial slums with no amenities and no heterogeneity at all. It's a more intense pocket of poverty."

The persistence of these urban poverty pockets, many sociologists say, is why the overall economic picture for African Americans remains so mixed.

Former Harvard professor Roderick J. Harrison runs Databank, an online clearinghouse of information on minorities associated with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank in Washington that advises elected officials. Harrison also served as chief of the U.S. Census Bureau's Racial Statistics Branch.

Important Supreme Court Cases Involving Race And Schools
Harrison says that 40 percent of black Americans fell under the poverty line in 1967, dropping to 22 percent by 2000. In 1960, Harrison says, only 40 percent of African Americans aged 25-29 had completed high school, compared to 62 percent of whites. By the year 2002 that gap had virtually closed, with 87 percent of blacks, and 93 percent of whites, acquiring a high school degree.

But Harrison is concerned about college completion rates. In 2002, only 16.5 percent of African American males 25 and older had completed college. The comparable statistic for white males was 35 percent.

"We're certainly talking about dramatic progress for blacks in many areas, but the battle should have shifted years ago to closing the gap at the college level because that's what a changing economy requires," Harrison says. "With blacks still at one-half the college completion rate for whites, there's no way they can compete for the professional and managerial jobs that spell economic opportunity today."

Two Steps Back

Historian Cheryl Greenberg, a faculty member at Trinity College, has researched a wide variety of race issues, including Harlem during the Great Depression, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and black-Jewish relations. The Supreme Court decision on Thursday, she says, reminded her of the "one step forward, two steps backward" nature of Connecticut's own long-running desegregation case, Sheff v. O'Neill.

"The pattern of American history is clear," Greenberg says. "Periodically, the efforts of brave African Americans and some whites manage to place in the public consciousness the contradiction between racism and America's stated ideals. Then something shifts and the pressure returns to maintain the racial status quo.

"So, we got rid of slavery and replaced it with legal Jim Crow. Then, after segregation was officially outlawed, a new segregation emerged based on zoning laws, housing patterns and school quality. The system always comes up with a new way to resist change."

Another problem of contemporary America troubles Wisconsin historian Kenneth O'Reilly, author of the classic "Nixon's Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton." Progress on race, O'Reilly argues, only occurs when majority whites are convinced by some other issue that it is in their interest to act in the direction of justice.

"Consensus can only arrive when you have the recognition that the problems of black people really affect white people," O'Reilly says. "We had that in the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln convinced many Americans that slavery would depress wages if expanded to the territories, so it was a free labor debate.

"During the civil rights era, we were also fighting a Cold War with the Soviets. How could we lead the world when the spectacle of race riots destroyed our reputation abroad? The Civil War was dramatic. Civil rights was dramatic. But now you have a bunch of judges in black robes, and lawyers in three-piece suits, arguing over whether a semicolon in an earlier decision means we can use race to enroll schools. That's not dramatic enough to rally around."

The tangibility of race issues also troubles George Washington University Professor Horton.

"When the problem was slavery or Jim Crow laws, the issue was evident, simple to see, and the moral choices were clear," Horton says.

"You could either try to avoid the consequences of a bad system or fight it. But racism today is more complicated, and subtle, and America's conscience can be assuaged by the very real evidence that a lot of African Americans have made it to the middle class. It's a lot harder to fight a problem that many people can avoid seeing."

Christina Bachetti contributed research for this article.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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